For 18 years, John Cornyn has represented Texas in the U.S. Senate with dignity, decorum and a legislative work ethic that has made him one of the more productive, and often bipartisan, lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
He’s championed criminal justice reform, stood up for trade with Mexico, stood against President Trump’s child-separation policy and passed major bills tackling sex trafficking and other complex threats to American welfare. Most recently he worked with Texas’ full delegation to send billions in aid following Hurricane Harvey and, when that money got snagged by bureaucracy, he helped to get it flowing.
“I work with people on a daily basis to pass legislation who I know get up in the morning trying to figure out how they can defeat me in my next election,” he told the editorial board in an hour-long interview last week. “… But you do what you can where you can.”
In an ordinary year, that might have been enough to endorse him for a fourth term, as we did for a third in 2014.
But in this year, in these deadly and divisive times, it is not enough. Not nearly. As a result, we heartily endorse Democrat MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who flew medical evacuation missions in Afghanistan where she earned a Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device, to become Texas’ next senator.
We find Hegar’s mix of energy, moral clarity, and assertive pragmatism invigorating.
“I just want our country to live up to the ideals for which it stands,” Hegar, 44, told us in an interview last week, vowing to put some “function” back into the Senate.
Amen to that.
Our growing, increasingly diverse state has long deserved representation from both parties in the U.S. Senate, not just from the Republicans who’ve held sway since Democrat Lloyd Bentsen retired to become Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary in 1993.
But what weighed most heavily in our decision to urge voters to embrace Hegar is our veteran senator’s failure to lead.
From 2013 to 2019, he was the second-ranking Republican leader in the Senate and yet has been almost uniformly silent as the party he represents has been steered off course by the tea party insurgency beginning in 2010, and more recently has been completely unmoored by Trump.
Cornyn told us he distinguishes between Trump the man — with his divisive and dishonest rhetoric — and Trump the president, whose policies Cornyn said he appreciates. We’ll grant that conservatives cheered Trump’s success in cutting taxes, even if primarily on businesses and wealthy individuals, and the remarkable pace with which he’s pushed the federal judiciary farther to the right.
But on issue after issue, Trump has conducted himself in ways that Cornyn surely agrees are damaging to the presidency, to our nation’s standing in the world, and to the institutions that safeguard our democracy, including Congress itself.
Trump has labeled the media as an “enemy of the people,” blithely and often crassly dismissed both the intelligence community and military leadership whenever they’ve reported facts that challenge his version of truth, attacked judges who ruled against him, claimed vast and largely unprecedented executive authority to ignore congressional demands, and installed an attorney general who has sent federal troops into a public plaza to disperse protesters.
Trump isn’t on the ballot in this race, but Cornyn’s consistent failure to use his vaunted position within the president’s own party to corral Trump’s worst behavior most certainly is.
This week, we had a good window into what might have been. Cornyn, responding to our questions about Trump’s personal conduct, including his decision to portray a deadly serious virus as a minor threat comparable to the flu, the senator told us: “The biggest mistake people make in public life is not telling the truth.”
So starved is the nation for members of Trump’s party to call him out on his dishonesty, that Chronicle news reporter Ben Wermund’s story about the rebuke instantly made headlines all over the country.
Imagine how different the conversation about Trump — about the virus, about Russia, about civil rights and protests, about decorum in public life — would have been over the past four years had Republican senators of Cornyn’s stature pushed back from time to time.
People who look at Cornyn often see a reasonable, experienced leader — one of the good guys in a place where they’re in short supply — and we wish he had used his many skills and long record of service to provide the leadership Texas needed. He hasn’t.
Case in point: Since at least 2014, Cornyn has acknowledged something few in his party did until very recently: that climate change is a threat to our planet and is driven in part by human activity. Yet, Cornyn has not pushed Washington, or even his Senate colleagues, to do anything substantive to better prepare for this fast-approaching crisis of existential proportion. Why not? Because, the senator has consistently said, industry should decide for itself how to address the threat, and if government intervention is ever needed, it ought to come from states, not from Congress or the president.
Cornyn knows perfectly well that left to its own judgment, industry, minus rare exceptions, will let the market and its bottom line dictate how fast this transformation should be, never mind the urgent warnings of scientists. Waiting for Texas regulators to demand the needed changes is like waiting for Mars to come bail us out.
Acknowledging a problem, then refusing to help fix it is not leadership.
Finally, there’s his stance on immigration, more recently the fate of the Dreamers. Cornyn told us he informed the president privately some time ago that, morally, he could no longer support using young people brought to the U.S. through no fault of their own as a bargaining chip in negotiations involving immigration, border security and Trump’s promised wall. Cornyn said he supported a stand-alone bill to help Dreamers.
That would have been a rare moment of leadership — had he done more than offer quiet counsel to a president not inclined to listen. Cornyn should have spoken out on the Senate floor, urging colleagues to bring a clean bill. Sure it would have bucked the party’s boss, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who prefers only bills that a majority of Republicans support ever get a vote.
But Cornyn knows the votes to pass such a bill are there — if only McConnell would bring the bill to the floor. Instead of using whatever influence he’s accumulated to try to make that happen, he told the president of his change of heart but otherwise stayed on the sidelines.
Texas needs a leader who would make that speech, rally allies, and press for legislation that is morally right, even if it means having to irritate the party bosses.
In response, Cornyn points to former Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who clashed with Trump only to see his career derailed. What good for Texas, he asks, could a senator do once sidelined by the president or the party?
But preserving one’s clout is only sound strategy if that clout is eventually used. We see very little evidence Cornyn has used it. After 18 years, Texans are entitled to ask — if not now, then when?
Hegar says she will be a senator who does the right thing, even if it shortens her career, who pushes colleagues to do what’s best for America and not just their party or their president. We have heard such pledges from others seeking first terms. But Hegar seems to mean it.
She lacks experience as an elected official. And her bona fides as a Democrat are thin, given her votes against Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. We took both things into account when we recommended another Democrat in the March primary.
But the chief question is whether she would do better than Cornyn, do better for Texas. All of it.
We believe the answer is yes. Lacking time in office does not mean she lacks relevant experience for this job. She is a retired military officer, with deep experience in mission planning — something she says in a combat zone requires recognition of facts as they are, not how she wished them to be.
That will come in handy in Washington, along with her experience working to convince the Pentagon to overturn a policy banning women from many combat roles, a campaign that involved joining forces with the ACLU as a lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit and helping lead a small army of female combat veterans to lobby leaders. They won: In 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially lifted the exclusion rule. Hegar’s later experience as an executive problem-solver in the private sector is also helpful.
She brings a middle-of-the-road approach that won’t please the left all the time. But she’s promised to keep Texans, not her party, in mind as she enters the Senate. We hope voters take her at her word and send her to Washington, then join us in holding her to her pledge.